Big Tech Looks to New Congress for Privacy Legislation

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With a new session of Congress–and a power shift in the House–looming in January, big tech companies are looking toward 2019 and possible new privacy legislation that will alter the shape of their business models.

“I’m very optimistic on an actual privacy law being passed in Washington,” said Niki Christoff, senior vice president, strategy and government relations at Salesforce, during Bloomberg’s Next.2018 event on Tuesday. “We’ve already got the Democratic caucus over the summer, who have very sophisticated members like Congresswoman [Zoe] Lofgren [D-Calif.] and Congresswoman [Anna] Eshoo [D-Calif.], who are already writing language. You have tons of engagement from industry, because we need a harmonized law.”

Frederick Humphries, corporate vice president of U.S. government affairs for Microsoft, offered an anecdote to show the current interest in privacy legislation in the United States following the European Union’s implementation earlier this year of its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

“There is a data privacy dashboard that we have. In the EU, two million people have checked and are utilizing the data dashboard. In the U.S., 2.9 million [people have used the dashboard]. I share that with you, in case you were wondering if there’s an appetite. People want to know about privacy and data and different aspects,” he said.

However, industry does not want to see GDPR cut and pasted into the Federal Register.

“We’re not Europe. We have the first amendment really high up in the Constitution, so we’re not going to have a regime in which we delete things from the internet, like the right to be forgotten in Europe. You do it a disservice by saying this is an American GDPR. This is an idea of an American privacy framework,” said Christoff.

In the run-up this fall to possible congressional action on privacy next year, numerous parties including the Commerce Department, major tech trade groups, and members of Congress have floated policy positions that debate the merits of consumer opt-in or opt-out regimes for collection of personal data, how data collectors and sellers should be regulated by the Federal government, and which agency should be tapped for such a role.

Christoff said that Salesforce has submitted comments to the White House on privacy issues, among other things arguing against an opt-in approach to date use, and against a new agency that would enforce privacy regulations.

“The fact that the Chamber of Commerce, which obviously represents a lot of businesses, is supporting this too shows that it’s not just an internet technology issue,” said Michael Beckerman, president and CEO of the Internet Association, which includes numerous tech giants including Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and Facebook.

He pointed to multiple American businesses that locked their sites to European visitors as an example of the failings of GDPR, and added, “I think we can do better.”

When asked to name a key member of Congress for tech issues, panelists offered up multiple members to watch, but all agreed one member in particular.

“Will Hurd is just phenomenal. He actually knows the issues, and he…is just a thoughtful, hardworking great member when it comes to tech,” said Humphries of the Texas Republican who will be giving up his chairmanship of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee in January.
“I think, for Salesforce, Congressman Hurd is going to be important. He’s been great on IT modernization, and getting the government into the cloud. Anybody working on IT modernization is going to be huge for Salesforce, and I think good for Federal government,” said Christoff.

On other issues such as privacy, however, expect to see some bipartisan cooperation, speakers at Tuesday’s event said.

“Before the election, even when we didn’t know the outcome, it was Republican senators leading the hearings, and it was the House Dem caucus leading a lot of the discussion behind the scenes,” said Christoff.

“(Privacy) is an issue that can bridge that divide…I hope to see members of both parties working closely together,” said Beckerman.

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